How the Marines succeeded at Belleau Wood in World War I
In 1918, World War I was in its fourth year. Imperial Russia had succumbed to the Communist Revolution and capitulated to Imperial Germany. In the West, a race against time was on. The Allies of Great Britain and France were watching with mounting concern as German armies from the Eastern Front began reinforcing those on the Western Front. Their armies, having been bled white and wracked by mutiny after three horrific years of trench warfare, were at the breaking point. The last hope for Allied victory was the United States. It had entered the war in April 1917, and its troops began arriving in France later that year.
The American forces were hastily trained for the demands of total warfare in the European model, and for the most part were equipped with a hodge-podge of weapons supplied by their allies. The question on both sides of the trenches was not if the growing number of American units would fight, but rather how well? Only combat would answer that question. Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg and Gen. Erich Ludendorff of Germany were determined to shatter Allied resolve and achieve victory with an offensive launched before the full weight of the U.S. Army could be felt.
On May 27, 1918, specially trained "shock units" led a three-pronged offensive that smashed into the British and French lines. At Aisne, the French lines bent, then broke. In less than two days, the German army was at the Marne River at Chateau Thierry. Once again, the German army had victory within its grasp, and once again, the road to Paris, about 50 miles away, was wide open. In 1914, France, and the Allied cause, was saved by a sudden influx of troops delivered to the front by Parisian taxis – the "Miracle of the Marne."
This time France had no miracles of her own remaining. Allied Commander-in-Chief Gen. Ferdinand Foch turned to Gen. John Pershing, commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force. Previously, Pershing had resisted releasing units piecemeal to reinforce depleted British and French divisions. He stated that when Americans fought, they would do so as a unified army.
But Pershing recognized that the present crisis overrode national considerations and temporarily released his five divisions to Foch's command. The American 2nd Division, containing the 4th, 5th, and 6th Marine Brigades, was assigned to Gen. Joseph Degoutte's French 6th Army, located along the Marne Front. Not since the Civil War had American troops been involved in a conflict of such magnitude. And it had been more than 100 years, at the battles of Bladensburg and New Orleans during the War of 1812, since the Marine Corps had faced an armed foe at the professional level as it did now against the 461st Imperial German Infantry regiment.
Though Pershing, an Army general, harbored little love for the Marines, he did not allow service parochialism to blind him to the Marines' capability. Shortly after Ludendorff's offensive began, when the 4th Marine Brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Charles Doyen, had to return to the States due to a terminal illness, Pershing assigned command of the brigade to his chief of staff, Army Brig. Gen. James Harbord, telling him, "Young man, I'm giving you the best brigade in France – if anything goes wrong, I'll know whom to blame."
It was not without some concern that Harbord assumed his new command. He was replacing a respected and loved commander; he was a National Guard cavalry officer, a temporary brigadier general; and his two regimental commanders were Col. Albertus Catlin and Col. Wendell "Whispering Buck" Neville, both recipients of the Medal of Honor. He worked hard at his new command and earned the respect of the Marines. Harbord would retire a major general and later write of his experience, "They never failed me. I look back on my service with the Marines Brigade with more pride and satisfaction than on any other equal period in my long Army career."
The fighting ended, exhausted and seriously depleted ranks of the 6th Marines gather outside Belleau Wood before moving on.
(USMC History and Museums Division)
The 4th Marine Brigade was ordered to shore up defenses and assume a blocking position north of the important east-west Paris- Metz highway. They dug into position along a line just above the village of Lucy-Le-Bocage. Immediately in front of the Marine line was a large wheat field, and beyond that was a mile square game preserve. The French called it Bois de Belleau. To the Marines and America, it would be immortalized as Belleau Wood. The Marines had barely gotten into position, digging shallow individual trenches they called "foxholes," when the German army renewed its offensive on June 2. Demoralized French troops in the forest began falling back. One French officer, as he passed through the Marine lines, advised the Americans to join in the retreat. Capt. Lloyd Williams responded, "Retreat, hell! We just got here!" The French officer and the other French troops continued on. Soon the Marines were alone.
The rest of the day and the following morning were quiet. The heat of the early June sun parched the throats of the Marines as they waited for the enemy to appear. Finally, in the early afternoon, movement was seen at the southern edge of the forest, and the distinct shapes of German soldiers in their feldgrau began to emerge. Long line after long line of soldiers, slightly crouched and weapons low, began trotting through the ripening wheat. Veteran Marines of the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the Veracruz Expedition lay side by side with unblooded men whose memories of the profane injunctions of their drill instructors were still fresh. The Germans confidently advanced. What they did not know was that no longer before them was a demoralized French foe. Instead, they were marching toward a fresh enemy with high morale that took pride in training its men in how to shoot. The Germans also did not realize they were already within range of the Marines' shoulder arm, the .30-06 Springfield M1903 rifle.
The accepted combat range of rifles during World War I was a maximum of 250 yards. The Springfield '03 was rated with an effective range of 600 yards. In the hands of an expert marksman, it could be deadly at ranges well beyond that. The line of gray-clad troops advancing through an open field presented the Marines with a shooting gallery. At 800 yards, the order was given, and sustained fire commenced. German soldiers spun, collapsed, and fell as bullets from the first volley tore into them. The German advance wavered, then astonished survivors fell to the ground seeking cover. Their officers ran through their ranks, shouting for them to get up and continue the advance. The troops rose and were hit with another volley fired at long range. A third attempt to advance was met by a third deadly volley that was also accompanied by machine gun fire. The stunned survivors retreated into the woods to take up defensive positions and plan their next move.
The commander of the German 28th Division facing opposite the American 2nd Division confidently told his men, "We are not fighting for ground – for this ridge or that hill. It will be decided here whether or not the American Army will be equal to our own troops." It was a prescient statement. Unfortunately, for him, not in the way he expected.
After receiving news that the German attack had been blunted at Belleau Wood, Degoutte ordered the 2nd Division to counterattack the following day, June 6. The attack began with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines launching a dawn attack on the German-held Hill 142 on the division's left flank. German machine guns raked the Marine ranks during the half-mile advance. The Marines succeeded in capturing the hill at about noon. But doing so had cost the battalion 410 casualties. It was a foretaste of what was to come.
Meanwhile, two battalions of the 6th Marines and one battalion of the 5th Marines were preparing for the main attack on Belleau Wood. The attack was launched at 5 p.m., and the Marines advanced in a formation and at a fast pace taught by the veteran French officers who had rounded out their training shortly after the Marines arrived in France. It was the same formation that had doomed thousands of French poilus during the disastrous offensives of 1914 and 1915. It achieved the same results on the Marines. As the Marines began crossing the battle-scarred wheat field, it was the German machine gunners' turn. The lead troops were quickly cut down. Surviving Marines dove for the ground and continued the advance crawling on all fours, pausing and, like pop-up targets, taking aim and quickly firing back before dropping down for cover in the wheat stalks. Even so, the advance slowed dangerously, with the German machine gun fire continuing seemingly unabated. It appeared that the attack would fail just 50 yards before the Marines reached the German lines.
Reporter Floyd Gibbons was with the Marines during the attack and lay terrified among the dead and wounded in the wheat field. Not far from him was Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Daly, a double Medal of Honor recipient for heroism in the Boxer Rebellion and Haiti. In a report he later filed, Gibbons wrote, "The sergeant swung his bayoneted rifle over his head with a forward sweep, yelling at his men, 'Come on, you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?'" The Marines with him stood up, and with a roar, charged. By the end of the day, the first line of German defenders was overrun and taken. But the cost of the attack was severe. On that day, the 4th Marine Brigade had suffered 1,087 casualties, making it the bloodiest day in Marine Corps history up to that point. More Marines had fallen on June 6, 1918, than in the entire 143-year history of the Marine Corps.
The Battle for Belleau Wood would continue to almost the end of June and was fought in a series of savage actions. It was during this battle that, according to legend, the 461st Imperial German Infantry gave the Marines the nickname "Teufelhunden" – "Devil Dogs." Finally, on June 26, Maj. Maurice Shearer of the 5th Marines sent to headquarters the message: "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely."
Convinced that the Marines had saved Paris, the French government renamed the game preserve Bois de la Brigade de Marine. And, more importantly, this action, as well as American success at Cantigny and Ch'teau-Thierry, Pershing later wrote, "… gave an indication of what trained American troops would do." But the German high command was not finished. A final German offensive was launched on July 15. This time, the 2nd Division and its Marines joined the French XX Corps and repulsed the German attack at Soissons, sustaining another 2,000 casualties. When the German offensive was stopped, the initiative shifted to the Allies. They responded with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
On July 29, 1918, Pershing made Gen. John A. Lejeune commander of the 2nd Division. His first assignment was to reduce the dangerous German salient at St. Mihiel. After four days of fierce fighting by the combined Marine and Army units, the salient was eliminated. The 2nd Division then was assigned offensive operations in support of the French Fourth Army, commanded by Gen. Henri Gourand. But German defenses along the Meuse River succeeded in slowing the French advance until it was stopped before Blanc Mont, or White Mountain, a ridge that dominated the region for miles. The Germans had held Blanc Mont since 1914 and had heavily fortified the ridge. To restart his stalled attack, Gourand wanted Lejeune to break up his division and disperse it into depleted French units. Lejeune's reaction was quick and hot. Following Pershing's example, he was not about to have his division broken up, particularly since there was no dire crisis now confronting the Allies. The Marine general told Gourand, "Keep the division intact and let us take [Blanc Mont]."
U.S. Marines in Belleau Wood (1918) by Georges Scott.
Gourand looked at Lejeune skeptically, then nodded his assent. Lejeune's plan was to assault the German position with lead attacks from both flanks and, when they had closed to pinch out and isolate the center, the rest of his troops would advance and overwhelm the defenders. In what Pershing would later call "a brilliant maneuver against heavy machine gun resistance," the attack kicked off on Oct. 3 with a short, five-minute artillery barrage of 200 guns. As soon as the cannon fire stopped, the 3rd Infantry Brigade launched its attack on the German right flank. Simultaneously, the 4th Marine Brigade attacked the German left. This was followed by an advance by the 6th Marines. Supporting the overall attack were French tanks. By noon, the 6th Marines had seized the crest and were clearing the heights. Additional troops from the 5th Marines moved up to add overwhelming power to the 2nd Division's punch. On the left flank was a heavily fortified position known as the Essen Hook that was assigned to French units who were temporarily held in reserve. As the battle progressed, the French troops were released to seize the Essen Hook. When the French proved unable to do so, a company of Marines from the 5th Regiment led by Capt. Leroy P. Hunt was ordered to help. Hunt's company succeeded in throwing out the Germans, and the Marines then handed over the Essen Hook to the French. The Germans returned and quickly overwhelmed the French defenders at Essen Hook, whereupon the 5th Regiment was forced to drive the Germans out a second time. This time they secured the position for good. When the day was over, Blanc Mont was in the hands of the 2nd Division.
Lejeune followed up the capture of Blanc Mont with an advance on the nearby village of St. Etienne on Oct. 4. The 5th Marines, who were leading the attack, literally ran into the Germans' counterattack designed to retake Blanc Mont. Unfortunately, the Marines' advance in the offensive had outpaced the French units beside them, causing them to form a salient that left them exposed to enemy fire from both flanks as well as their front. Despite the murderous fire falling on them, the Marines grimly kept the pressure on. After four days of intense fighting in which the Marines suffered more than 2,500 casualties, including the seemingly indestructible Daly, who was wounded, St. Etienne was liberated and, by Oct. 10, the Germans were in full retreat.
Not long after the battle, the grateful French government awarded the 5th and 6th Marines and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion their third citation of the Croix de Guerre for gallantry. As a result, the members of those outfits were now entitled to wear the scarlet and green fourragère. Field Marshal Henri Petain, the hero of Verdun, would add his own accolade, stating that, "The taking of Blanc Mont Ridge is the greatest single achievement in the 1918 campaign."
Of the Marine Corps contribution in World War I, Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.) wrote in his book, A Fellowship of Valor, "Less than 32,000 Marines served in France. More than 12,000 of those given the opportunity to fight in France became casualties; 3,284 died. The survivors had given their country and their Corps a legacy of courage, esprit, and ferocity which would remain the standard of combat excellence for the remainder of the violent century."
This article originally appeared on Argunners. Follow @ArgunnersMag on Twitter.